Celiac Disease, Gluten-Free and Your Child: Tips for Parents

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nicole-freedman-author-banner-101613 My nephew is 4 years old and he is aware of his gluten-free diet. It’s cute watching him walk around our local farmer’s market asking vendors if their samples are gluten free. I’m not sure he understands what “gluten-free” means, as I’m sure that many adults can’t answer that question, but I give him kudos for knowing to ask. You may be thinking, “Why would someone need a gluten-free diet anyway?” The main reason is celiac disease, but there are other health conditions thought to be improved by avoiding gluten as well, but I will focus on celiac disease in this blog post.

Understanding Gluten

Before we dive into the topic of celiac disease, it helps to understand what gluten is. Gluten is a tiny protein present in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. If you have ever eaten bread, cake, pizza crust or pasta, then you have eaten gluten. Most people can eat foods that contain gluten without any problem, but when people have celiac disease, gluten makes them sick.

Signs and Symptoms of Celiac Disease 

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the small intestine. Autoimmune conditions occur when the body attacks itself. In this situation, when someone with celiac disease eats gluten, the body attacks the little projections lining the small intestine called villi, which are responsible for absorbing nutrients in our foods. When the villi are damaged, then the body cannot properly absorb nutrients. Celiac disease means that the person has a permanent intolerance to gluten. Signs and symptoms of celiac disease generally appear in kids when they are introduced to foods that contain gluten, which is usually between six months and two years of age. However, kids can be diagnosed with celiac disease at any age. Sometimes symptoms begin gradually rather than appearing suddenly. Signs of celiac disease in kids include:

  • Anemia
  • Fatigue and irritability
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, stomach ache, decreased appetite or long-lasting constipation
  • Poor growth and difficulty gaining weight
  • Tooth discoloration and changes in tooth enamel
  • Skin rash
  • Weak and brittle bones

If you think your child has celiac disease, contact their pediatrician or gastrointestinal specialist.

Celiac Disease, Gluten-Free and Your Child: Tips for Parents
Focus on what your child can eat, like fruits and veggies, rather than what they cannot eat.

Help Your Child Navigate Their Gluten-Free Lifestyle 

While there is no cure to celiac disease, you can help your child’s intestine heal by avoiding gluten in their diet altogether. Avoiding gluten helps their damaged intestine heal and symptoms of celiac disease symptoms go away. If gluten is reintroduced into your child’s diet, even in small amounts, the intestine becomes damaged again and the symptoms return. This is why people with celiac disease need to make a lifelong commitment to avoiding gluten permanently. To help your child with their gluten-free lifestyle, it helps to meet with a registered dietician because they can provide tips and suggestions on meal preparation and shopping at the grocery store. If you’re not sure if the grocery store carries gluten-free items, give the store a call before shopping. Other grocery store tips include:

  • Reading food labels for keywords such as “gluten free”
  • Reading the complete list of ingredients on the label. Always read the label because manufacturers can change ingredients at any time.

Try to focus on what your child can eat rather than what they cannot eat. Gluten-free foods include:

  • Cheese (Check the ingredient label for additives)
  • Corn
  • Fresh fruits and veggies (If buying canned or prepared fruits and veggies, don’t forget to read the ingredient label)
  • Fresh meats and fish (If buying deli meat or packaged sandwich meat, ask the butcher if the meat contains additives or gluten and don’t forget to read the ingredient label)
  • Eggs
  • Grains and their flours such as quinoa, buckwheat, tapioca, potato flour, millet, arrowroot, amaranth and soy
  • Unflavored rice

Other Ways to Help Your Child with Celiac Disease

I’ve been talking about reading labels on food items, but it helps to read labels on non-food items. Did you know there are certain things in your child’s environment that contain gluten that you would probably never guess? Some items known to contain gluten are:

  • Adhesive in postage stamps and envelopes
  • Lip balms
  • Play dough
  • Some prescription and over-the-counter medications
  • Some vitamins and herbal supplements

If something says “wheat free” it doesn’t necessarily make it is gluten-free. Talk to your child’s school nurse and teachers about their gluten intolerance. Ask your child’s teacher is you can store gluten-free snacks in the classroom for classroom birthdays or other eating activities so your child doesn’t feel left out. Help your child understand their condition to ensure that they understand what they can and cannot eat. A gluten-free lifestyle can be very healthy so it’s great to get the whole family on board at home to make things easier for your child. I hope your learned something new about celiac disease and gluten-free living. I know I certainly did and feel better prepared to keep my nephew away from gluten. For other tips on caring for kids with celiac disease and living gluten-free, I found the Celiac Disease Foundation website and North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition website helpful. Many thanks Mayumi Nakamura, MPH, RD, CSP, clinical dietician, Division of Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, for providing me with great resources for this blog post.